Is the Media Failing Australia?
A book of essays, edited by Robert Manne - with David Marr, Guy Rundle, Jack Waterford, Eric Beecher, Margaret Simons, David McKnight, Dennis Glover, Quentin Dempster and Jon Faine.
Is our media doing its job when it comes to Australian politics? Is it frank and fearless in pursuit of spin and evasion?
Why have we entered an era of shockjocks and celebrity commentators? What will changed media rules mean for our public sphere?
This is a book in which insiders assess the performance and the political influence of the Australian media. It offers a critique of its strengths and weaknesses and is not afraid to point the finger. Its writers are leading media figures who possess unique insights as well as the ability to write a highly dramatic and readable essay.
They take us inside the fearful ABC, inside the world of the Murdoch press, inside the press gallery, and they take us inside the world of talkback radio. (from Gleebooks)
Title: Do Not Disturb
Subtitle: Is the Media Failing Australia?
Editor: Robert Manne
Authors: David Marr, Robert Manne, Guy Rundle, Jack Waterford, Eric Beecher, Margaret Simons, David McKnight, Dennis Glover, Quentin Dempster and Jon Faine
Publisher: Black Inc. Agenda
Date: August 2005
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September 10, 2005
A BOOK whose title includes a rhetorical question seldom leaves you in any doubt about the answer.
This collection of essays on the Australian media will leave both practitioners and consumers thoroughly depressed, the more so because most, if not all, of the contributors believe that not only is "media" a singular noun, but that it is worse than a failure: it is, to use a more technical term, well and truly stuffed.
And no solution is in sight.
Commercial television and radio, popular magazines and the tabloid press have long since given up as purveyors of the serious information to become mere entertainers, and are now engaged in a breakneck race to the bottom of even that dubious market.
"Quality" journalism is now largely confined to the Fairfax papers and the ABC, with the latter starved of funds and beset by internal bickering and the former losing their purpose under the new wave of corporate management.
The Murdoch empire can expect a similar fate when its present manic boss either dies or relinquishes power; for the moment he retains such iron-fisted control over his products as to deny any semblance of independent thought.
Interestingly, Murdoch's flagship, The Australian, took the accusations seriously enough to print extracts from the essays by Robert Manne and David McKnight and to produce an indignant rebuttal, which was accepted readily enough by the faithful but was seen by the cynics as an exercise in tokenism and sophistry.
Still, the demonstration that our most powerful expatriate is still occasionally sensitive to criticism in his former home (or at least some of his supposedly cowed editors are) can only be good news; perhaps things aren't quite as dire as Manne and his fellow Jeremiahs believe.
However, they are quite dire enough. Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis in the book comes from Eric Beecher, who has scaled the heights of both the Fairfax and the Murdoch organisations and is now involved in a number of fringe publications principally on line.
Beecher traverses some familiar ground; traditional journalism, even - perhaps especially - at the quality end is no longer regarded as either credible or relevant by most Australians, particularly those under 40.
As a result, newspapers are dumbing down and proprietors are treating what was once seen as something of a public trust as just another business. Worst of all, the advertising base, led by the classifieds, the rivers of gold that used to fund the quality press, is migrating to the internet, stymieing any hope of a return to the good old days.
The situation appears hopeless, but not desperate, because the public seems not to care. David Marr cites the ongoing issue of asylum seekers as an instance where the clear dereliction of the media has been matched by the callous indifference of its audience. Guy Rundle suggests that this is part of a more general cultural change in which the neo-conservative right has become the paramount force in Australia.
It is certainly true that the Howard years have produced a major shift in attitudes, and that even the broadsheets are now dominated by conservative columnists: there is no longer a shortage of right-wing Phillip Adamses. But the problem goes deeper: journalism itself has become more cautious, more ready to toe the line.
Admittedly the circumstances have changed: the totalitarian grip John Howard exerts over the control of information, not just from within his government but throughout the public service and any institution remotely dependent on it is unprecedented. And as I have written elsewhere, the layout of parliament house is itself a serious impediment to news gathering.
But even within these limits there seems to be a reluctance by most journalists to challenge politicians who try to hide behind weaselly phrases such as "operational matters", "commercial in confidence", and the old one-size-fits-all, "national security".
As Labor speech writer Dennis Glover points out, the current press gallery can hardly be described as pro-Labor, although it obviously contains a few lefties. Equally, the presence of a few Tories does not make it pro-coalition. The problem is that it isn't pro-anything much these days; the fire has gone out of its belly.
In common with the rest of the media, journalism has become a career rather than a calling. In the quality press you will still find much good writing, and perhaps too much clever writing; but you will find very little passionate writing. Along with the advertising, it is migrating to the internet; but the internet is still a work in progress. It will be a long time before it becomes the solution rather than the problem, if it ever does.
In the meantime we are stuck with the media, singular or plural. We can rightly attack their failings, but it is worth asking whether, through our own apathy, we are also failing them.
ABC Radio: The Media Report
11 August 2005
How good a job does the media do? A pretty ordinary one, according to Robert Manne. He's a prominent political commentator and also the editor of a new book: 'Do Not Disturb: Is the Media Failing Australia?' After reading it, it's that, from Professor Manne's perspective, there's a lot to fix.
Robert Manne: One element of the problem, and I think probably for me the biggest element of the problem, is the absurd side of the Murdoch press. Now if Murdoch and the Murdoch corporation, News, was interested only in money, that wouldn't matter so much, but News Corporation is interested in shaping minds, worldwide I think Murdoch in a way is the most influential neo-conservative on the globe, and not as a man of ideas but as the propagator of ideas. And 60% or 70% of the Australian mainstream press is owned by Newscorp, much too large.
And the second part of the problem is the ABC has been attacked so often for being under the control of the left, that it no longer provides a kind of ballast in the balance of opinion which we need, particularly at the upper end of the market.
And the third problem, in my view, is that there's something new in the 'commentariat' as it's called, that is a very, very aggressive, right-wing kind of pack, which goes for people who dissent on all sorts of issues with a sort of viciousness that I've not previously experienced in Australia. It's also had a very big effect on public debate in Australia.
Richard Aedy: Well let's unpack them, one by one. There's no question at all that News Limited owns a whopping proportion of the Australian print media, but its national flagship, The Australian, is a very fine newspaper, it consistently breaks stories.
Robert Manne: Well I think it's an OK newspaper. The Australian is not noticeably a worse paper than the other quality papers. It is however, a more ideological paper, with much more kind of explicit agendas, than the natural rivals, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. And I think that gives it an importance in the balance of opinion in the society, because a lot of intelligent people read The Australian, and I think because it has a neo-conservative agenda by and large, and the other papers don't have much of an agenda, it does skew matters a bit; particularly when it's in tune with, on the one hand, what the government wants done, which it often is, and on other hand is in tune with the more populist parts of talkback radio and the tabloids, which are also owned by Newscorp. I think that creates a very powerful kind of lobby in a certain direction, or voice in a certain direction, and it worries me a lot.
Richard Aedy: Well let's I suppose turn to the ABC. The ABC in the two articles by Margaret Simons, and also by Quentin Dempster, comes off as 'timid, under funded and really not what it was'.
Robert Manne: And that's I think, true. Politically the ABC is now very selfconscious about the accusation of right-wing critics that it's a left-wing organisation, and it seems to me it bends over backwards not to allow that criticism to hold, which means that I think it has a nervousness and a lack of toughness which in my view in the last few years, were needed.
Richard Aedy: Do you think it's started to affect things like what stories the ABC does? And how it does them?
Robert Manne: I suspect it does. You can never prove what programs could have been run.
Richard Aedy: Do you think then that it is not as robust in its journalism as it might otherwise be, and as it has been in the past, because the ABC has always got into trouble with governments.
Robert Manne: I think it's not as robust as it's been the past. I think there are some programs which are robust. I'm a great admirer of Tony Jones and 'Lateline' because I think they've come under a lot of pressure for the amount of time they've spent on some issues, and in particular the asylum seeker issue, but they haven't wavered. But I've felt on other programs that there is a consciousness of the kind of political criticism that might come if they dealt with certain issues in certain ways. Now if things are not dealt with, it's very hard to prove, and I can't prove that the ABC on all sorts of current affairs programs, could have been tougher than they have been.
I'll give you one example of something I would have liked reported properly. With the asylum seeker issue, I regard as one of the really great scandals, the fact that we lock people up for several years on Nauru, and the Nauruan government, under Australian influence, didn't allow any journalists to go there to see what was happening, and that went on for years. I would have liked the ABC to play a major role in putting pressure on the government to turn that around, to say it's intolerable for Australia to have locked people up and then to allow any journalists to go to see what's happened to them, and what the consequences of that detention have been. And I think the ABC would have been, to be honest, frightened, to really make a campaign of the government policy on Nauru.
Richard Aedy: You brought up the example of asylum seekers; David Marr writes extensively in his contribution, and David Marr's point, it seems to me, is that the media has not been interested in this story, not just the ABC, but the media, because the public was not interested, didn't want to know.
Robert Manne: Yes, it's a diverse book and that's David's view. It's very hard to know if the media had taken up an issue in a certain way, whether that would have itself excited interest. A lot of people that I've met became involved in the refugee issue when they saw secret film on 'Lateline', of a catatonic 6-year-old Iranian boy who'd been so traumatised by the experience at Villawood that he didn't eat or drink, a boy called Shayan. Now not one commercial television network took the story up. If they had taken that story up, and made a big thing of it, it might have had an influence on public opinion. And thus the perception that the public isn't interested in a way the cause and effect is very muddled. It seems to me that if that story had been told with compassion, I think Australian people might have begun to get interested in the way they did get interested in Cornelia Rau. So you never know what might have happened if the media had taken a story up.
Richard Aedy: Robert, if one is an ABC-watching and viewing, broadsheet reading, not complete big-C conservative, this book is a somewhat depressing one.
Robert Manne: Yes I hope that it's also a call to action, and a call to thought. It seems to me that Australia has passed through a sort of counter-revolution in sensibility over the past 10 years, and many people who are small-l liberal, and not necessarily left-wing even, understand that something big has happened to the country, and they wonder whether there's a coming back from it, or how long it will take to come back from it. And thus one of the reasons that that has been possible and it's been possible without much really serious discussion, is that we have a media which for all sorts of reasons, hasn't held the government to account with detailed work and with morally charged work.
Now it might be a depressing book for people to read about, but then again, I think it's a very difficult situation that we face, and it's one, which I think independent people need to call for action and change.
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Richard Aedy: But what is to be done though? If these are problems, what are the solutions?
Robert Manne: I've always thought that the first thing before you get on to solutions, is to identify the problem and to debate it out. If there was now a big argument in Australia about the role of the Murdoch Press in the national politics, and if in particular there was a big debate about media regulation laws, and the implication of the deregulation, the details of which we don't yet know, if those debates took place, and if the media itself, and it would have to be in this case Fairfax and the ABC, because it's not possible that Murdoch press will describe these things honestly, if Fairfax and the ABC discussed with a sort of intensity, the issue of Murdoch's absurd dominance of the mainstream press, and also the implication of media regulation and the need we have to break up what might be called the duopoly, which is almost a monopoly in the mainstream press, and if we discussed the dangers of television becoming dominated by those who already dominate the newspapers, then I think something good will have come from the book. And that's all I hope for: vigorous, courageous and unfrightened debate from those who conceive that there's not enough kind of diversity and robustness in the alternatives to the present.
Robert Manne: Robert Manne is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, and editor of 'Do Not Disturb: Is the Media Failing Australia?' published by Black Inc, Agenda.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is a kind of balance sheet on the parliamentary press gallery. Jack Waterford, the editor of The Canberra Times, says the gallery didn't do a bad job covering the last election; it just didn't really break any stories.
Jack Waterford: It may well be that contrary to the view that the press sort of is missing out or has no idea of what's going on, that the media pretty well have it right in terms of what the issues were. There were certainly a large number of issues about that might have been explored more in the election. The obvious ones would be refugee policy and Aboriginal affairs policy, question-mark: multiculturalism generally, and the election was pretty much fought from start to finish on the terms that the two major parties said that it was going to be about.
Richard Aedy: How important then is the gallery in shaping what readers and viewers and listeners think of our politicians and our government?
Jack Waterford: Well there are two points to consider when you think of the answer to that. The first is there is an extensive commentariat in Australia, which has nothing whatever to do with the gallery. They're often regarded as being a part of the gallery in effect, but the Piers Ackermans, or the Robert Bolts or the Gerard Hendersons of the world are not working out of the press gallery, they're commenting from Sydney, from Melbourne and with all, or pretty much the same facilities that members of the press gallery have in terms of access to transcripts and government documents and so forth. The press gallery proper, the 300 or so journalists working out of the actual building, are very competitive, they read to an extent far greater than anywhere in Australia, they read each other's copy and they know what each is on to. There are people who worry that they have too much of a pack mentality, but my observation is that everybody is trying to get their own angle or their better version of the story. But on the other side, all too often their output is depressingly similar.
Richard Aedy: So how relevant are they then, in terms of how we see our politicians, what we make of the government, if there's this commentary that's overwhelmingly Sydney and Melbourne based, and they're all watching what each other writes; how relevant are they in terms of painting the picture?
Jack Waterford: Well I think that politicians are no longer as interested in persuading the media. The government in particular regards the media as yet another interest group to be appeased in some manner, but is not at all keen to submit itself to any form of scrutiny or questioning. John Howard in particular, very much prefers talkback. He would say that's so that what I have to say is not filtered by the press gallery. The point about it is, is that as often as not he's just not willing to be closely examined by people who have a close knowledge of the facts. The press does a fairly good job of reporting the day-to-day. It does an obviously less adequate job of reporting the whole battle, or the broader policy themes of what it's all about.
Richard Aedy: Because I'm struck by you point to the commentariat, and you point to talkback in this article, and it kind of leaves me wondering what the gallery is supposed to do, and how relevant they still are.
Jack Waterford: Well I think sometimes that the gallery is bought a pathetic bargain in terms of things like the grab or the 'pic facts', where the Prime Minister will stride up in front of a lectern, say about five or six sentences and then walk away, answering no questions whatever, or giving only trivial answers to them. That's not submitting yourself to the scrutiny of the public. But probably half of the gallery one way or another is hooked on to that sort of material. The print media is supposed to get more time for analysis and observation, and if you like, cud-chewing over their longer production cycle, I'm not always sure that they're doing as well as they could, in particular because I think that their circle of contacts is too narrow. But the best gallery writers as often these days, are the parliamentary sketch writers, who are simply good writers and often rather funny, but they're not telling you anything profound or new about the state of Australian politics.
Richard Aedy: I want to get back to something you mentioned a little earlier which is this idea of group-think. Certainly there have been critics of the gallery who've said they are all on the same page too much of the time.
Jack Waterford: Well I don't think that they sit together and caucus about how they're going to write a story. I think it's much more competitive than that. I think if anything, there's too much of the caucus of news editors back home who think that the ideal sort of story is this, and all too often the ideal sort of story is an exchange of insults and some close hand-to-hand combat, but story which tells you very little about the political condition and which quite often turns off readers or listeners.
Richard Aedy: A criticism that's certainly been made on The Media Report this year from various people is that the gallery needs to get out more.
Jack Waterford: Well I think that's so. In fact I think the start-off point is that they need to get out of Parliament House full stop. It would be a far better thing if the press gallery were generally based in somewhere like the National Press Club or in a building outside of Parliament House, because Parliament House is a city in itself that casts a bit of a pall over all of the players and makes them just a little bit too ignorant of what's going on, even in Canberra, which of course many people think itself is not part of the real world.
Richard Aedy: You said that the government views the gallery as just another lobby, so something to be managed in effect, not you've stressed in the article, not cultivated.
Jack Waterford: No, not cultivated by much. The Labor party tends to be closer - I'm not saying that the press gallery is supportive of Labor, in fact the evidence is increasingly against it, but the Labor party tends to be more comfortable with the press and to think aloud with it. The Howard government has long been far too disciplined to talk or think aloud with the press. Whenever they use it, they are thinking in fairly cynical terms and they are playing a very conscious game of media management. Very few journalists, even the most senior ones, are routinely penetrating the councils of the government.
Richard Aedy: Do you think then that given that the gallery tends not to break a lot of stories, though certainly there are specific examples one can point to: Dennis Shanahan seems to have a very good line into the Prime Minister's office, and until John Anderson left very recently, The Australian also had, it seems, a very good line into that office. So they are getting stories out, but you would argue that only the stories that the government wants to get out.
Jack Waterford: Well not all leaks are necessarily deliberate, but very few leaks are causing the government major problems. Laurie Oakes is breaking stories still from time to time, but it's all too rarely these days that I'm reading a piece of good journalism that makes me think 'Bloody hell, I wish I'd written that'. The reporting is generally quite tradesmanlike, but it is not telling people the material that they, the government in particular, don't really want you to know.
Richard Aedy: Well what's gone wrong then? Because gallery journalists tend to be bright, they tend to be ambitious and competitive, they tend to work hard, what's gone wrong?
Jack Waterford: I think they're too close to the politicians and this is one reason why I think there's a case for physical separation from them, and they get into a lifestyle which is very similar to that of the politicians. I think first of all they need some distance from them, and they need some of their comforts distracted, their ease of access physically and geographically to the politicians, the way in which they can be whistled up almost at a moment for a 'pic facts' or something like that. I think they've got to make the politicians work rather harder to get their attention. But the mere getting out of the gallery suddenly exposes them to a whole host of information whether it's from the bureaucracy generally, or from an increasing array of think-tanks, universities, academia and whatnot who are devoted to policy issues, or increasingly, into the lobbyist system which of course always has views on the way government policy ought to develop.
Now that's itself some remove from what the wider public thinks, but it's exposing the process of policy formulation and policy disputation to a much wider circle than what the minister says and then what the shadow minister says in reply etc., it's a wider debate, and the gallery ought to be a part of it.
Richard Aedy: I feel I know what you're going to say to this, but I will ask it regardless: in terms of how policy is developed and then how it's implemented, I'm talking about what the Public Service does, that's very important in this town and for the readers of your paper, but apart from Verona Burgess who used to be here and is now at The Fin, how well is the gallery across that sort of thing?
Jack Waterford: Well the very top journalists are very well connected into senior parts of the bureaucracy. The longevity say of a Laurie Oakes or something like that, is because of his bureaucratic connections as much as his political connections. But there are many people who seem to know very little of the bureaucracy, and even very little of the way in which it works. Even if you're going to be primarily a political journalist, it very much is worth your while to know how the system works, if only because that's the way you can backtrack decisions and find points of contact on it, and find material that will be useful in your discussion of it. I think the bureaucracy is still seriously under-reported in Australia.
Richard Aedy: Jack Waterford from The Canberra Times.